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Satyajit Ray’s Rendezvous with Documentaries

February 24, 2021 | By

Satyajit Ray absorbed the local reality when he shot on location and much like a documentary filmmaker, allowed that reality to pour into his camera. Documentary filmmaker Subha Das Mollick explores the celebrated documentaries of the maestro.

Satyajit Ray with Ravi Shankar

Satyajit Ray with Ravi Shankar during recording of Pather Panchali‘s music

‘Grierson once defined the documentary as “the creative interpretation of reality”. …The question that immediately arises from the definition is: What is reality?…Even fables and myths and fairy tales have their roots in reality….Therefore, in a sense, fables and myths are also creative interpretations of reality. In fact, all artists in all branches of non-abstract art are engaged in the same pursuit that Grierson has assigned exclusively to the makers of documentary film’. – Satyajit Ray, The Question of Reality in Indian Film Society News

Satyajit Ray had been bitten by the film bug when he was in school. In his late teens he used to go to the movies with a notebook and a small torch and noted down his observations on the film – first about actors and their craft and then about directorial contributions in the film. He watched at least one movie a week, usually in upbeat movie halls like Metro or Globe in the central part of his city Calcutta. Hollywood movies were his favourite. Billy Wilder was one of the directors he looked up to. In his Oscar acceptance speech given in 1991 from his deathbed in Bellevue Hospital, Ray said, ‘Then of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either.’

Ray found British movies rather stiff and Bengali movies ‘tame, torpid versions of popular Bengali novels’. (Ray, Our Films Their Films)

Satyajit Ray's documentary Sikkim

The king of Sikkim watching a dance performance – a still from Satyajit Ray’s documentary Sikkim

Documentaries did not feature in Ray’s repertoire because documentaries were not shown in movie halls. So Ray’s cinematic sensibility was shaped by classical Hollywood cinema of the golden era – films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington –a comedy drama with a political undertone, musicals like The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca, a romantic drama against a political backdrop. When he went to Viswa Bharati for his post graduation in fine arts, he lamented that when he was languishing in Santiniketan,  Citizen Kane came and went from the Calcutta movie halls.  

In Santiniketan, Ray had access to books on different art forms. There were books on cinema too. One of the books was a Penguin paperback titled Film by Roger Manvell. Through books like this, for the first time, Ray got acquainted with film aesthetics other than that of Hollywood. Roger Manvell’s Film has a detailed analysis of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, a movie banned in British India. Looking at the stills of ‘Odessa Steps Sequence’, Ray understood the meaning of collision montage. But it was an understanding at a theoretical level. His chance to watch Battleship Potemkin would come a few years later. Film has an entire chapter dedicated to ‘Documentary’ where the author talks about Flaherty and Grierson, the British documentary movement, war time documentaries and American documentaries like Plough that Broke the Field. The last chapter of Roger Manvell’s book is titled ‘Why not start a film society’.

In October 1947, Satyajit Ray, along with three other young film enthusiasts, established Calcutta Film Society. Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta were joint secretaries. Chidananda Dasgupta mentioned in an interview to Jyotiprakash Mitra in 1999 that they used to knock at the doors of distributors and borrow the cans of films that were not publicly released in the exhibition chain. Dasgupta specifically mentions Maria Candelaria, Dance of Life and Robert Flaherty’s documentary film Nanook of the North. Ray and the other founding members of Calcutta Film Society had read about these films in Roger Manvell’s Film. Later British Council lent film cans to Calcutta Film Society. Many of these British films were famous documentary films like Night Mail. This documentary by Basil Wright became a much discussed and dissected film in Calcutta Film Society. (Jyotiprakash Mitra, ‘Face to face with Chidananda Dasgupta’ in Chitrabhash, Jan – Sept 1991)

Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar Kalpana

Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar strike a pose in the dancer’s dream project Kalpana

The Indian film that became a talking point in Calcutta Film Society discourses, was Uday Shankar’s experimental film Kalpana. Released in 1948, Kalpana is an exploration of dance form through the eyes of a mobile movie camera and other cinematic apparatus. Uday Shankar’s daring experimentations with film form and the film camera’s masterful capturing of Shankar’s dance movements, came up for discussion at the Society gatherings. During the screening of Kalpana in the hall, Ray had captured images of the cinematographer’s frames in sync with Shankar’s complex choreography.

In spite of admiration for cinematic experimentations, Ray’s natural inclination was towards storytelling. He believed that one of the fundamental lessons an aspiring filmmaker has to learn, is to be able to tell stories using the medium of cinema. In Ray’s own cinema career, two momentous events influenced his understanding of the potential of cinema to tell good and varied stories. One event was meeting Jean Renoir in 1949 when the French filmmaker came to Calcutta, first for a reconnaissance visit and then for the shooting of River. The other event was Ray’s trip to England in 1950. Both these events awakened the dormant filmmaker in Ray. Renoir taught him to observe life with a painterly eye and capture apparently insignificant passing moments on camera. England gave Ray the much needed exposure to European cinema. While in Europe, Ray watched 99 films. Vittorio De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves made a deep impression on Ray. He writes in My Years with Apu, ‘de Sica was doing just the things I wanted to do in my own film and succeeding beyond measure.’

The man who grew up on Hollywood films, declared after watching Bicycle Thieves, ‘The Indian film maker must turn to life, to reality. De Sica and not DeMille, should be his ideal.’ (Ray, Our Films Their Films)

Among the many other films Ray watched in Europe, was Robert Flaherty’s Lousiana Story and he found it ‘quite interesting’. ‘But there is no evidence that Ray found Flaherty as inspirational as De Sica or Renoir’, writes Chandak Sengoopta in his essay ‘Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and the Shadow of Robert Flaherty’ (Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 2009)

On his way back home from England, Ray completed his treatment of Pather Panchali. The saga of the making of Pather Panchali is, by now, a well known lore of Bengal.

It is an irony that Frances Flaherty, wife of Robert Flaherty, mistook Pather Panchali to be a documentary film. She was very upset to witness Sarbajaya beating Durga black and blue in the necklace stealing scene. Ray wrote years later that it broke his heart to tell Frances that the scene was scripted and enacted by city actors.

Flaherty Society had a special screening of Pather Panchali in 1957 and they invited Satyajit Ray as a special guest at the 1958 Robert Flaherty Seminar.A reviewer in The New York Post wrote at this time that the film reveals ‘what it is like to live in an Indian village’. Chandak Sengoopta writes in his 2009 essay:

“….American release of Ray’s first film Pather Panchali was brought about, to a large extent, by the efforts of Flaherty devotees who regarded this profoundly literary film as a dramatized documentary. Panchali enjoyed great critical and commercial success in the United States and reviewer after reviewer imagined it to be a Flahertyesque chronicle of real life in rural India. These misperceptions helped inaugurate Ray’s American career with a bang …”

Sengoopta has quoted several reviews in his essay. For instance,

‘Time hailed it as “perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North …a luminous revelation of Indian life in language that all the world can understand.”’

Rabindranath Tagore - a film by Satyajit Ray, 1961

Rabindranath Tagore – a film by Satyajit Ray, 1961 (Pic: ICA)

Ray’s first opportunity to make a documentary film came in the year 1958. Films Division of India invited Ray to make a documentary on Rabindranath Tagore on the occasion of the poet’s upcoming centenary celebration in 1961. By then Ray was three films old and had bagged two prestigious international awards. Ray was a natural choice for the Government of India not only because of his fame but also because of his proximity to Tagore as a Bengali, a Brahmo and somebody steeped in Togorean ethos. When Ray was seven years old, he went to Santiniketan with his mother to visit the poet. The little boy gave a purple notebook to Tagore for autograph. The poet kept it for a night and the next day returned it with his autograph. It went like this:

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray on the sets of the documentary film on Sukumar Ray

I travelled miles, for many a year,
I spent a lot in lands afar,
I’ve gone to see the mountains,
The oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
Just two steps from my home lies
On a corn of paddy grain,
A glistening drop of dew.

(Translation by Rajib Roy)

The film that Ray was commissioned by the Govt, was to be the official film on India’s national poet. Thus there was no room for Ray’s personal views on the poet, nor was there scope for any critical evaluation of the poet’s life and work. Yet he could not allow the film to turn into a hagiography. Ray delved for more than two years into the ocean of Tagore’s work. Scanning through all the manuscripts, letters, paintings and musical notations, he rediscovered the genius of the poet and internalized his philosophy and worldview of universalism.

Tagore and Satyajit Ray

A poem written by Tagore in Satyajit Ray’s autograph book

The hour long film that emerged in 1961 is not just the story of a man’s life, but the story of an era, and in some essential ways, the story of Calcutta that was home to the poet as well as to the filmmaker. After a brief prelude showing Tagore’s funeral procession followed by the title sequence against the aural backdrop of the song sung in chorus Nobo arunadoyo Joyo hok, joyo hok, the film begins with the establishment of the city Calcutta and posits the Tagore family in the larger context of the fledgling city that soon came to be regarded as the second city of the Empire. Since there is no filmed footage of Tagore’s early life, the first quarter of the film is constructed with short enacted scenes that succeed in creating an atmosphere. Every phase of Tagore’s life is linked to momentous events in the history of India and the world, be it the swadeshi movement, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the two great wars. These events made Tagore what he was – a visionary, a poet calling out to the world, a messiah of peace and harmony.

Towards the end of the film we hear the song Tobu mone rekho (remember me when I am gone) in the poet’s own voice. An ordinary director would perhaps have ended the film on that note. But Ray ends the film with an image of Tagore raising his arms to welcome the ultimate saviour of humanity, he bows to the ultimate triumph of human spirit. His song He oi mahamanav ashe, heralding the arrival of messiah or mahamanav plays on the sound track. This is the abiding philosophy of the poet that Ray the narrator had mentioned in the prelude ‘He left behind a heritage which no fire could consume. It was a heritage of words, of music and poetry, of ideas and ideals. And it had the power to move us, today and in the days to come. We who owe him so much, salute to his memory.’

Sikkim, a film by Satyajit Ray, 1971

A still from Sikkim, 1971 (Pic: ICA)

In its style, Rabindranath Tagore is Griersonesque with a voice of God narration in Ray’s own voice throughout the film. In its structure, even though following a linear chronological order, there is a cyclic element. The title sequence is set against the shot of a sunrise, with a chorus playing on the sound track and the penultimate shot, before the messiah like image of Tagore, is also that of sunrise accompanying the chorus He Oi mahamanav ashe …

Pather Panchali

Rain comes after a long spell of summer in Pather Panchali

A student of cinema may find this documentary film dated because voice of God documentaries have become passé in Europe and America. Yet there is a lot to learn from the film.  The pacing of the film, breathing spaces between narrations loaded with information, smooth transitions from one context to another and the perfect match between spoken words and visuals are all exemplary in this film. One of the most poetic moments in the film comes at 20 minutes 40 seconds. Ray the narrator says, ‘The world in which moods of people and moods of nature were inextricably interwoven. The people found room in a succession of great short stories. And nature, in an outpouring of exquisite songs and poems, dominant with the mood of the rains – exultant and terrible’. And over the visuals of an overcast sky, begins a sombre rumbling song that makes man one with nature – Hridaye mondrilo domoru guru guru/ Ghono megher bhuru kutilo kunchito/ Holo romanchito bono bonantore……  

Ray’s Rabindranath Tagore is a film that familiarizes the world with the life and work of one of the finest poets of the world. During the making of the film Ray had written to Marie Seton that the back breaking hard work he had to put into this film, far surpassed his earlier feature films. Without perhaps realizing this, Ray pronounced an essential truth about documentary film making. Making a truly great documentary can prove to be more back breaking, more time consuming and more demanding on one’s patience and intellect than making a fiction film.

Satyajit Ray's documentary Sikkim

Two scenes from Satyajit Ray’s documentary Sikkim

Ray went on to make four more documentaries in his lifetime – three biographical documentaries including one on his father Sukumar Ray and one documentary on the lives of people in the exotic Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. All these films are Griersonian in their use of voice over narration. The voice of the narrator is the only voice dominating the film, except in the performative sequences.

Balasaraswati dancer

Balasaraswati performing Krishnani Begane Baro on a secluded sea beach 20 miles away from Madras city

Bala, made in 1976, on the Bharatnatyam dancer Balasaraswati, is the only film in which Ray has included interviews of the protagonist Bala Saraswati and also those of V. Rajaram, Uday Shankar and Dr. Narayana Menon. Even though Ray was an admirer of Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, he takes a conscious decision to keep the camera practically static during Bala’s nearly five minutes long performances on the sea beach and ten minutes long stage performance at the end of the film. It is as if the camera is spellbound, in awe of the performer. It has no desire or audacity to be a part of the choreography.

Balasaraswati dancer

Balasaraswati performing Varnam inside a studio against a black backdrop

Yet, this ten minutes long sequence casts as strong a spell on the spectator as the concluding sequence of Inner Eye, Ray’s documentary on the blind artist Benode Behari Mukhopadhyay. In this film too, like in Bala, the artist’s performance creates the magic on screen. Benode Behari’s inner vision guides his pen over blank pages to create works of poignance and humour. The film ends with Benode Behari’s quote, ‘Blindness is a new feeling, a new experience, a new state of being’. The filmmaker’s virtuosity takes a backseat when the film is on a virtuoso in the world of visual art or performing art. Satyajit Ray was a student of Benore Behari; but his personal rapport with his protagonist does not spill into his film – not even in the film on his father Sukumar Ray, which he made in 1987, the centenary year of the king nonsense rhymes.

Balasaraswati Satyajit Ray documentary

Ray on the sea beach during shooting of Bala

In his documentaries Ray never experimented with ‘fly on the wall’ style direct cinema or ‘participatory camera’ style cinema verite. He wrote in his essay The Question of Reality, ‘One of the common methods employed is the dogged pursuit of an individual (often a celebrity) with camera and microphone, recording his action and speech, both trite and significant. The footage is finally given some coherence by judicial selection and assemblage. The method raises obvious doubts. … is hard to imagine anybody being in a position to completely ignore the presence of instruments which hover around him, recording for posterity his words and deed.’

He continues in the same essay, ‘The sharpest revelation of truth in the cinema come from details perceived through the eyes of artists. It is the sensitive artist’s approach to reality that ultimately matters, and this is true as much of documentaries as of fiction films.’

Satyajit Ray's documentary on Sukumar Ray

Sukumar Ray and his wife – a still from Satyajit Ray’s documentary on Sukumar Ray

In Pather Panchali, Ray spent all his ingenuity to create the famous scene of Chinibash mithaiwala’s rhythmic walk along the village pond, to the zamindar house, with Apu and Durga close at his heels. Ray was determined to add a dog to the little procession. Durga held a chunk of meat in her hand to lure the dog behind her. It took him at least half a day to shoot this one scene – a carefully constructed bit of reality that Flaherty Society and the critics of New York mistook to be a piece of documentary reality.  In the same scene Ray used a body double of Chinibash when the little procession arrived at the doorstep of the zamindars. When Ray took up shooting after a hiatus, the original Chinibash had sadly expired.

In Bert Hanstra’s documentary film Glass, there is a famous scene in which the mechanical arm of the assembly line picks up the neck of a bottle instead of the whole bottle, causing all the subsequent bottles on the assembly line to fall and crash – till a human supervisor notices the mechanical error and intervenes to set things right. Through this scene Hanstra makes a point about human intervention in a mechanical system. He could not leave it to chance. He constructed the scene carefully to make sure that he got what he wanted, much like Ray constructed his scene of Chinibash mithaiwala. Thus the documentary filmmaker and the fiction filmmaker were driven by the same passion of creating a chunk of reality they envisioned, rather than capturing what presented itself in front of the camera. And to get the reality they wanted to capture, they had to tweak the reality of the moment.

Pather Panchali

Bald man sitting by the pond in Pather Panchali

In many a Ray film, the reality of the space and setting have enriched his narrative. In the rain sequence in Pather Panchali, the first raindrop of the season falling on the bald man’s pate was captured by quickly calling the bald man in the village just when it was about to rain and asking him to take position by the pond. The lotus leaves quivering in the breeze, the grasshopper, the raindrops falling on the pond, were all candid documentary reality captured by the fiction filmmaker’s camera.

In Kanchenjungha, Ray got hold of the local boy who candidly sang a local song looking straight into the camera. His mouth was full of the chocolate given to him by Monisha’s suitor after being spurned by his lady love. Behind the boy, the majestic Kanchenjungha peak unveiled itself from a cloud cover. Earlier in the film, Ray had cut to the little boy several times as he was following Monisha and her suitor up and down the hilly Darjeeling road. That is how, a chunk of local reality became a part of the fiction narrative’s world. In a similar way, the local Rajasthani singer became a part of the narrative of Sonar Kella. Ray was so impressed with the singer that he digressed from his original script and constructed a scene specially for her and made sure that the narrative take a dramatic twist in this scene.

These examples prove that Ray absorbed the local reality when he shot on location and much like a documentary filmmaker, allowed that reality to pour into his camera, even though he was one who believed in meticulous planning before he went out with his camera.

This tension between planning and improvisation forms the foundation of the documentary film Ray planned and sketched lovingly, but never got down to making it. A Sitar Recital by Ravi Shankar is a film he could see clearly in his mind’s eye. Sometime in the 1950s, after Pather Panchali and before Aparajito, Ray made a detailed storyboard of the film. The storyboard not only has drawings of the frames, it has notes on camera movements, dissolves, cuts and change in light conditions. Ray could not only visualize the frames, he could hear the music in his ears, from alap to vilambit laya in slow tempo to madhya laya to the jhala in fast tempo. He could even hear the meer as Ravi Shankar’s finger would slide from one note to another touching the micro tones or shrutis on the way.

An Unfilmed Visual Script Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar

Zoom into Ravi Shankar’s fingers playing on the frets of the sitar (An Unfilmed Visual Script Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar)

In Shankarlal Bhattacharya’s words:

“Ray’s film is a detailed study of a creative process, the step by step elaboration of a raga that eventually becomes a musical text. ….His camera languidly, and in harmony with the meditative pace of the alap, acquires the nature and quality of a musical instrument playing in consonance with the music on screen. ….Ray’s camera slides from image to image like his subject’s fingers shift from string to string to bring out micro tones, his camera play working on approaching or receding from the image.” (Shankarlal Bhattacharya, ‘Unheard Melodies’ in Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar, Pub: Collins, 2014)

Ravi Shankar and Satyajit Ray

Opening frame of the film on Ravi Shankar imagined by Ray

The question is, why was the film not made eventually? Some speculate, perhaps there was a rift between the two maestros after Ray started composing his own music. However, if one analyses the elaborate storyboard, one would realize that to bring this storyboard to life on screen, one would require either a multi camera set up or repeated performance by Ravi Shankar and his tabla accompanist. In the 50s and 60s, multi camera set up with film cameras was practically impossible and repeated performance of the same piece by the maestro was also equally impossible because the essence of Indian classical music is improvisation. No classical musician can give exactly the same rendering of his recital when he is asked to give a repeat performance. Ray had conceived something way ahead of his time. Ray had reportedly told Ravi Shankar that when he heard Shankar play the sitar, he could visualize patterns rising from the sitar strings and filling the air. Ray had wanted to capture those patterns in his film. The time was not yet ripe for such experimentations. If Ray had pulled it off, it would have been the first film of its kind – ‘a journey of exploration from a concert into the concepts of melody, nature, man and art’.

Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar

Cover of An Unfilmed Visual Script: Satyajit Ray’s Ravi Shankar (the storyboard of Ravi Shankar film published by Harper Collins)

On examining the fictitious and real elements captured by Ray’s camera, the imagined and the material world unfolding in his films, one realizes that behind every fiction filmmaker lurks a documentarian and behind every documentary filmmaker lurks a fiction filmmaker. Filmmakers have split personalities because their chosen medium is like the two faced god Janus. It is as adept at documenting reality as it is at creating an illusion of reality. One way or other, what you see on screen is always a ‘creative interpretation of reality’.


‘The Universal Film for all of us, everywhere in the world’: Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and the Shadow of Robert Flaherty, Chandak Sengoopta (2009)

Satyajit Ray, ‘The Question of Reality’ in Four Times Five – 20th Anniversary Souvenir, Films Division, 1969

Jyotiprakash Mitra, ‘Face to face with Chidananda Dasgupta’ in Chitrabhash, Jan – Sept 1991

Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, Andre Deutsch, 1989

Satyajit Ray, My Years with Apu, Viking, 1994

(All pictures are courtesy the author, unless specified)

More to read

Ray’s Scientiphilia

Ray’s Ravi Shankar – A Blueprint for Posterity

Ray@100 Lecture 3: The Desiring Woman in Satyajit Ray’s Cinema

Creative Writing

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Subha Das Mollick is a media teacher and a documentary filmmaker. She has made more than 50 documentary films on a variety of subjects, most of which have been aired on the national television. She had been the head of the Film Studies and Mass Communication Deptt. at the St. Xavier's College, Kolkata.
All Posts of Subha Das Mollick

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